Monday, June 08, 2009

Yale, Van Gogh's "The Night Cafe" and Personal Property: What's Mine is Mine, and What's Yours is Mine

At Healthcare Renewal and at numerous other healthcare blogs, we write about academic and industry conflicts of interest, malfeasance, and other topics in the hopes that there are leaders within organizations who might correct the wrongs that result from such conflicts and behaviors. (That is, when it is not those same leaders behind the scandals in question.)

Our efforts are based on the assumption (perhaps, more correctly, a hope) that the problems within organizations are not organic and ideological, and that they are in some fashion amenable to correction internally and externally via exposure to sunlight.

What if we're wrong?

A story caught my eye about my Medical Informatics alma mater. A Frenchman, Pierre Konowaloff, is suing Yale for return of a famous Van Gogh painting that was confiscated from his family in the early 1900's by totalitarians, psychopaths who created what proved to be one of the most oppressive and murderous regimes in history (the Soviet Union).

In return, Mr. Konowaloff was countersued by Yale.

Yale alleges that the confiscation of the painting by the Soviets was A-OK because "international law was not violated" [by the confiscation - ed.], therefore Yale has legitimate and unchallengeable dibs on the painting.

"International law" was not violated? This response is beyond stunning.

I had to retrieve my jaw from the floor after reading the story:

Wall Street Journal
June 3, 2009

Yale Sued Over Van Gogh Painting Seized by Soviets


A descendant of the onetime owner of a famed Van Gogh painting has sued Yale University in an effort to reclaim the artwork from the Ivy League school.

In a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in New Haven, Conn., Pierre Konowaloff alleged that the university should have known the painting—"The Night Café"—had been confiscated from his great-grandfather, Ivan Morozov, a Russian industrialist and aristocrat, during the Communist takeover of Russia in the early 1900s.

The 1888 painting was subsequently sold by the Soviet government to a European gallery. Stephen Carlton Clark, a Yale alumnus, bought the painting from a gallery in New York in the early 1930s and bequeathed it to Yale in 1961.

In his suit, Mr. Konowaloff, who lives in France, accuses the university of engaging "in a policy of willful ignorance" that amounts to "art laundering," and asks the court to declare him the rightful owner. Aware of Mr. Konowaloff's intention to claim the painting, Yale filed a lawsuit of its own last March in federal court in New Haven.

In its suit, Yale asserted ownership of "The Night Café," claiming that the nationalization of the painting by Communist Russia -- while at odds with capitalism -- did not violate international law. Yale stated in its lawsuit that "it was accepted at the time, as it is now, that the sales by the Soviet government were valid, as were later acquisitions of the paintings."

In other words, rather than doing the right thing, Yale is claiming that the theft of personal property by the Soviets was OK by them. (While Yale is well known to have a culture far to the left and many of its leaders and faculty probably sympathize with communists, Hitler also "nationalized" the artwork and other property of individuals. Would Yale find those actions in accordance with "International law?" One can only wonder.)

Van Gogh's "The Night Cafe"

Now, if this were a one-off event, it would not be as illustrative of a systematic ethical decay that I fear exists in the hallowed Ivy halls. However, Yale has recently been fined $7.6 million after an investigation by NIH, NSF, DOD and others into misuse of research money by faculty. I wrote about that event at "Lux et Veritas, or Trust But Verify? Yale discovers eDiscovery", and the powerpoint from within Yale outlining the issues was eye-opening.

Here is a synopsis of the outcome:

Yale University Pays $7.6 Million to Resolve False Claims Act Allegations (PDF)

—excerpted from U.S. Dept. of Justice press release, Dec. 23, 2008

Yale University has entered into a civil settlement agreement with the federal government in which it will pay $7.6 million to resolve allegations that it violated the False Claims Act and the common law in the management of federally-funded research grants awarded to the university between January 2000 and December 2006. The grant awards were made by approximately 30 federal agencies and entities, including NIH, NSF, DOE, DOD, and NASA.

The investigation focused on allegations involving two types of mischarges to federal grants. Both types of mischarges arose as violations of the basic principle that recipients of federal grants are allowed to charge to each grant account only “allocable” costs, which are costs that relate to the specific objectives of that grant project.

The first allegation involved cost transfers and the requirement that costs transferred to a federal grant account must be allocable to that particular grant account. The settlement resolves allegations that some Yale researchers at times improperly transferred charges to a federal grant account to which those charges were not allocable. Researchers allegedly were motivated to carry out these wrongful transfers when the federal grant was near its expiration date and they needed to spend down the remaining grant funds. Federal regulations require that unspent grant funds be returned to the government.

The second allegation involved salary charges and the requirement that charges to federal grant accounts for researcher time and effort must reflect actual time and effort spent on a particular grant. It was alleged that some Yale researchers submitted time and effort reports, for summer salary paid from federal grants, that wrongfully charged 100 percent of their summer effort to federal grants when, in fact, the researchers expended significant effort on unrelated work.

Researchers allegedly were motivated to carry out these wrongful salary charges by the fact that they are not paid their academic-year salary by Yale during the summer. The only salary received by these researchers during the summer was the result of the effort they charged to federal grants. Absent the alleged grant mischarges, the researchers would not have been paid.

The $7.6 million payment comprises two components: $3.8 million in actual damages for the false claims, and $3.8 million assessed as penalties for the false claims.

Taxpayer money was used as they pleased until caught. What's mine is mine, and what's yours is mine.

Yale's clinical operations have seen federal investigation once before which I wrote about at "Insufficient IT Management Depth Results in Justice Dept. Investigation, Millions of Dollars in Fines." That story was more about IT incompetence rather than malfeasance, however.

I've had my own personal experiences with these "what's mine is mine, and what's yours is mine" property-rights attitudes at Yale. Perry Miller, Director of Informatics, Kenneth Kidd, Professor of Genetics, and Carolyn Slayman, Deputy Dean for Academic and Scientific Affairs, waged a rather one-sided and extortionary battle to misappropriate my intellectual property, a computer program I'd authored as faculty, assisted by a lawyer in Yale's Office of General Counsel -- who for good measure was in fact unauthorized to practice law in Connecticut at that time. Ex-colleague faculty Richard Shiffman "purged" me, Stalin style, by telling recruiters who called that I didn't exist - one of those recruiters, unfortunately for him, happened to be a detective I retained. I wrote up the story in detail at this site. Dr. Kidd in particular was a principal in the now-defunct Human Diversity Genome Project in which he and others promised indigenous tribes their genetic materials would not be misappropriated for others' gain and profit. (I found that position risible considering my circumstances. Kidd's research raised further issues as I wrote at "Informed consent, exploitation and developing a SNP panel for forensic identification of individuals.")

University officials right up to President Richard Levin (in the WSJ recently lamenting the decrease in the value of Yale's endowment from $24 billion to $17 billion), said they could do nothing to help me, even though I was being badgered for my software and actually blackmailed (through denial of confirmation of my training and faculty time at Yale to potential employers).

You would think a university with an endowment in the billions of dollars could have protected its own junior faculty from senior faculty predators, and you'd also think it could return a Van Gogh to the heir of a man who had it stolen by thugs who later murdered tens of millions of their own citizens.

Ironically, when I was Yale School of Medicine junior faculty in Yale Center for Medical Informatics, I was charged with teaching postdoctoral fellows about NIH ethics guidelines. The tenured senior faculty I was working for just didn't have the time.

Now, I may simply be a "disgruntled former Yale faculty member" after nearly having my career destroyed by these people in what was the most disappointing experience in my life, bar none, but the pattern of "what's mine is mine, and what's yours is mine" seems to be all too commonplace in Yale's case. From Bloomberg's coverage of the same Van Gogh story:

June 4, 2009
By Cary O’Reilly

... Konowaloff’s claim is the latest litigation accusing Yale of improperly possessing artwork or historic artifacts. The Republic of Peru sued Yale in December seeking a collection of artifacts excavated from Machu Picchu and other sites by university scientists and researchers.

I'd written about Machu Picchu here:

... Peripherally related in the scientific sense but perhaps closely related in the ethical and ideological sense, I've just discovered via a recent newspaper that Yale has some additional problems of late regarding property: "Peru demands return of Machu Picchu treasures by Yale", Miami Herald, July 25, 2007, by Tyler Bridges (now a Peruvian resident). Yale apparently went so far as to interpret the laws of a foreign nation, which is, of course, Yale's right as a sovereign entity, the People's Republic of Yale, it would seem:

Key documents include a 1912 Peruvian decree stating that Peru reserved the right to request the objects' return, and a 1916 letter that [Yale professor/explorer Bingham] wrote to the National Geographic Society about the artifacts from the 1914-15 expedition. ''Now they do not belong to us, but to the Peruvian government, who allowed us to take them out of the country on condition that they be returned in 18 months,'' Bingham wrote. Yale officials have said that Peruvian law in force in 1912 does not require the university to return objects from Bingham's expedition that year.

Perhaps less credible is this additional allegation from Bloomberg:

... Yale and a secretive student society known as the Order of Skull & Bones were sued in February by the descendants of the 19th century Apache Indian warrior Geronimo. The family claims a group of Yale students may have stolen some of Geronimo’s remains in 1918 and taken them to Yale’s campus. The university denies the allegation and says it has no connection to Skull & Bones.

Then there's Yale's Taliban Man incident per John Fund at the WSJ. The former deputy foreign secretary of the Taliban was taken as a student at Yale in 2006 while at the same time the school blocked ROTC training from its campus and argued for the right of its law school to exclude military recruiters.

I fear other Ivy universities also lack a sense of basic ethics, both at the individual faculty level and collectively, i.e., including the leadership. I'd written about the ghastly events regarding the Duke lacrosse team affair at "A Truly Appalling Lawsuit Against Duke University." Harvard Medical Schools's own ombud had written an article in JAMA in the late 1990's entitled "Authorship: the coin of the realm, the source of complaints", outlining the commonality of fights over IP between faculty and students, and admitted in a response to my Letter to the Editor that this could not be prevented by administration (which in my view translates to, "the administration's worse than the faculty in this regard.")

Others at Healthcare Renewal and related blogs have written about ethical lapses at other major universities as well.

In summary, if both the majority of the faculty as well as the administration of our major universities never learned as children about respecting others' property, and pass these attitudes along to future academics and future captains of industry, the bloggers will be unable to teach them very much. We will continue on a course of periodic academic and industry healthcare (and other) scandals of increasing scale, along with the wasted talent, resources and opportunity these scandals represent.

-- SS

Addendum: after such a grim report, I thought I'd throw in something pleasant. Here is a friend I feed at the nearby park, one of six, in fact, Mute Swan cygnets (babies). The parents like me so much, they've offered me food in return - lovely clumps of fresh tender grass, which to them is a delicacy:

Cygnus olor - click to greatly enlarge these adorable fuzzballs

It's a great picture, but it's not a Van Gogh. Since I once worked at Yale, however, let's hope they don't claim the photo is theirs.

-- SS

6/10/09 Addendum:

Remarkably, there is apparently someone in the health IT community who was offended by the posting of the photo of the cygnet I feed (done, of course, as "comic relief"), as I have been informed. One can only wonder if violations of intellectual property and civil rights by universities, or patent safety concerns by faulty EHR's cause equal offense.


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MedInformaticsMD said...

Of course, the best part of the post was the picture of the little cygnet.

-- SS